Strengthening your glutes is always a good idea. Among their many tasks: They stabilize your hips, propel you forward while walking or running, and help you balance when standing on one leg. But there’s a lot of incorrect or suboptimal information out there when it comes to effective glute exercises. For example, fitness influencers doing lateral walks with “booty bands” and alleging that they’re targeting the gluteus maximus. (They don’t.)
Before we go any further, let’s define what the “glutes” are: The gluteal muscles are made up of three distinct muscles on the outer and back of your hips. The gluteus minimum (or “glute min”) is the smallest of the bunch, and you can’t feel it as it lies deep behind the gluteus medius (or “glute med”).
Both the glute min and glute med function to stabilize the hip when you’re on one leg. For example, when running there’s a significant demand on both muscles, especially the gluteus medius, to stabilize the hip and not allow it to drop (termed “contralateral hip drop”). Additionally, both muscles are involved in moving the leg away from your midline (hip abduction) and hip rotation.
“These two smaller gluteal muscles are critical for every day activities because of the role they play in hip stability and weakness in them can lead to significant discomfort along the hip or changing mechanics all along the lower leg, “ says physical therapist Jacky Shivrupr. “Strengthening these muscles can be low hanging fruit when it comes to improving movement. Of course, that program needs to be designed appropriately in terms of starting place and progression.”
The largest muscle of the group, the glute max, is what’s most often associated with the glutes as it’s the larger, visual muscle of the group. It functions to extend the hip behind you and help rotate the hip outwards.
In combination, all three muscles serve a very important purpose in activity and optimizing movement, which is why you want to make sure they’re strong and functioning properly.
What’s the best way to train glute muscles?
We can look at key research on gluteal muscle activation (as studied by electromyography or EMG) for answers to those questions.
Electromyography (EMG) studies on gluteus medius and gluteus minimus activation show that, generally speaking, single-leg exercises elicit the highest level of activation in the muscles. This makes sense considering, as discussed before, the role of the two smaller muscles in stabilizing the hip and leg during the single-leg phase of activity.
EMG studies on the gluteus maximus have shown the step-up exercise and variants as eliciting the greatest demand on the muscle, followed by exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and barbell hip thrusts. Interestingly, the barbell hip thrust had high gluteus maximus activation regardless of the specific form or weight used.
“In addition to overall activation, EMG studies also give key insight into how to progress the exercises—starting with lower activation and then moving into higher ranges as the individual is deemed ready for them,” Dr. Shivrupr adds.
Accordingly, we can use this EMG research to develop a methodical approach and plan to strengthen the glutes.
Gluteal strengthening plan
Some key notes before we get into the details. The plan is a progression so you’re going to start with the first exercise and then only move on to the next once you can hit three sets of 10 reps without any difficulty. That’s the signal you’re ready to make things tougher.
Further, I also suggest you space out the two groups of exercises during the week because although each is targeted to specific gluteal muscles, there’s going to be some overlap with each of the exercises. Ideal spacing will have at least 48 hours between each—for example, gluteus minimus and medius training on Tuesday and gluteus maximus training on Friday—so you aren’t overtraining or overfatiguing those areas. (Remember: The glutes are also being worked during your daily activities.)
Lastly, I’ve tried to include only bodyweight exercises up until the final level of each progression. The goal is to get up to that final stage and then be able to go back to the beginning and progressively add weights.
Gluteus minimus and medius training
Level 1: Side-lying hip abduction
Lay on your side with bottom knee bent and top leg straight (option to have both legs straight). Raise the top leg towards the ceiling and back down without letting your hips rock forward and back. That’s 1 rep. Complete for the allotted amount of sets and reps on both legs.
Level 2: Single-leg bridge
Lay on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Lift one leg into tabletop, knee over hip, shin parallel to the floor, and then, with the other leg (foot still flat on the ground), push down through the sole, squeeze your glutes, and lift your hips up until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to knee—if you’re feeling this in your back, you’re likely going too high on the lift. Come down slowly. That’s 1 rep. Complete for the allotted amount of sets and reps on both legs.
Level 3: Running man
Stand tall on one leg with knee bent around 30 degrees. With the other leg (foot in the air), slowly swing the leg forward and backward like you’re running on that side. That’s 1 rep. Key here is to keep the hips level and avoid leaning.
Level 4: Single-leg squat
Stand tall on one leg with knee slightly bent. Squat down and then back up. Make sure to control the descent portion (aka the eccentric), hold onto something if balance is an issue, and only go down as far as you’re comfortable then stand back up. That’s 1 rep. The balance and depth will improve as you get better at the movement.
Once you’re able to get near 90 degrees and complete the 3 sets of 10 repetitions, you can begin to add weights, whether dumbbells, barbell, or kettlebells.
Gluteus maximus training
Level 1: Half squat
Stand tall, feet under hips, and arms stretched out in front of you. Sit your butt back and lower down to roughly 45 degrees, then return to start. (Don’t allow your knees to buckle inward.) That’s 1 rep.
Level 2: Full squat
Stand tall, feet under hips, and arms stretched out in front of you. Sit your butt back and lower down to roughly 90 degrees, then return to start. (Don’t allow your knees to buckle inward.) That’s 1 rep.
Level 3: Lateral step-up
Standing next to a step (step is to the side of the leg you will be working), step sideways with nearest foot onto the step. Press down through that sole to stand tall on step, allowing other foot to hover in the air. Then reverse the motion to return back to the starting position with both feet on the ground.
If you have access to multiple different heights of steps, I’d recommend going through at least two different heights as progressions prior to advancing to level four.
Level 4: Step-up
Standing in front of a stable, elevated surface with both shoulders facing it, step upwards and push through the stance leg to get both feet on the step. Then reverse the sequence to get back to the starting position.
I recommend a medium step height, and once you’re able to complete the 3 sets of 10 repetitions, you can begin to add weights, whether dumbbells, barbell, or kettlebells.